Puffing Education Credentials on Résumés: Are Good Liars Hard to Find?

The state of résumé “re-do” is nothing new. According to Jude Werra, president of Jude M. Werra and Associates LLC, a Brookfield, Wisconsin-based executive search firm, there is no shortage of liars.

Werra calls it the Liars Index® which he created in 1995. “It’s the number of people who’ve misrepresented their education divided by the number of people whose education we checked,” he told me in an interview in 2004. In short, it’s the percentage of people who invented an educational degree. In the first half of 2003, he said, it was 10.59%. The index peaked at 27.27% in the second half of 2011. Since then, the index has ascended and descended, with a low of 14.00% in the second half of 2012, reaching its next zenith in the second half of 2014 with 24.39%, the most recent period cited in an April 1, 2015 online survey by Pre-employment Inc., a national consumer reporting agency.

“The cases we have surfaced include altered majors and changed graduation dates, but the majority of those who misrepresented themselves claimed degrees where their attendance was only for a semester or two, or not at all” Werra said. Werra’s surveys show that 95% of the time employers immediately eliminate candidates who claim nonexistent degrees. Since education is a credential easily verified, common sense should indicate not to lie. But apparently, this is not the case.

For anyone thinking about embellishing their “unowned” credential, here are some of my favorites:

In 2014, Wal-Mart’s top spokesperson David Tovar resigned after a two-decade-old lie was revealed in his résumé. He had claimed he had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware; however, he had never completed the required coursework. His fib prohibited a promotion for which he was being considered.

Ex-Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson jousted with the truth and got ousted for his impropriety when it was discovered that he claimed degrees in accounting and computer science. In fact, he had only an accounting degree. Hired in January, 2012, he agreed to resign in May after an active investor had illuminated his fib.

Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT from 1997 to 2007, perpetuated for 28 years—nearly to perpetuity, it seems—a lie that she had three degrees. As dean, ironically, she had reduced the allocated space on applications for candidates to describe extracurricular activities, stating more space meant more fluff. In 2007, the school learned from an anonymous source that there was no degree of truth to her credentials, and she was forced to quit.

Now-retired CEO of Bausch & Lomb, Ronald Zarrella, told many folks that he had an M.B.A. from New York University. Although he had taken classes at NYU, he had never earned the degree. Shedding light on his fake credential didn’t bother the company. They rescinded his $1.1 million bonus for 2002, but let him keep his job; he retired in 2008.

David Edmondson became RadioShack’s CEO in 2005, but resigned in 2006, after admitting he had falsely claimed to hold two degrees (including one in theology); he had no degrees.

Back in 2002, coaches at Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame were deposed for embellishing their résumés, including Notre Dame’s head football coach George O’Leary (claimed master’s degree in education) who lost his job over his fabricated résumé. He was hired in 2001. His fibbing resulted in only a short hiatus; he took the helm as head football coach at the University of Central Florida in 2004.

Later that year, Washington, D.C. fire chief Ronnie Few was forced to resign when his college degree and a fire-chief-of-the-year award were aired as fabrications.

So did Sandra Baldwin, the first woman named chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Baldwin may have, in essence, been an honest woman (now Diogenes can extinguish his lamp), but she told a whopper of a fib when she presented her résumé to the Olympic Committee. Not only did she misrepresent the school from which she earned her bachelor’s degree, but she listed a Ph.D. she never completed.

Closer to home, former CEO of Charlotte-based TransAmerica Insurance, Bill Simms’ claims of Olympian prowess led to his disgrace and resignation.

I could add to the list, but you get the point.

“A good man is hard to find,” novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote. “Honesty is such a lonely word,” lamented Billy Joel in a song. “Sewing a lie to a credulity,” as the late poet Dylan Thomas pointed out, may work for a while, but eventually the light of day exposes its.

I would suggest that anyone who contemplates claiming any unearned degree, however desperate, consider the consequences: Is one lie worth a damaged career?

5/2, 5/6, 5/13/19